#6: On Corporate Power

I was down at the Occupy Vancouver march on Saturday – it was such a lovely day for a demo. Given the world-wide focus on corporate power and the abuses thereof, I think it’s time to resurrect Running Man.

Running Man’s steel manifestation in Kelowna

I worked with the Running Man image exclusively from about 1997-2002.  This series, using an image of a man running headlong into the future and oblivious to the past, explores  the ideas and assumptions behind the corporate free-enterprise paradigm, consumerism  and the impacts of these ideas on society, economy  and  environment.  The Running Man image is also a vehicle to explore the inner workings of individuals who are pressured into participating in relationships of dominance and ruthless  competition. These individuals are always in a hurry, rushing toward their own and the planet’s demise.  They must avoid personal attachments that might jeopardize the struggle to get ahead so personal relationships are neglected in favour of business acquaintances.

Running Man sometimes becomes aware of the emptiness of his inner life but the feeling soon passes as the strength of his ideological commitment to the accumulation of wealth reasserts itself. A wonderful French film in the Vancouver Film Festival called My Piece of the Pie perfectly embodies the character of Running Man . This film was especially powerful because it did not follow the usual Hollywood formula where the nasty, ruthless rich guy sees the light at the end of the movie and through personal transformation becomes more sensitive & caring.  This film illustrated the reality of the right-wing corporate mind-set – they just don’t get it.  No matter how clearly he is shown the evils and grief caused by a fundamentally unethical economic system,  Running Man just is too entrenched in his position to change it.  From where Running Man sits, everything looks just fine and when he is exposed to criticism of his world, he can’t figure out what people are griping about.  To him, self-interest is the basis of a divine plan for the creation & distribution of wealth.  Those with the most self-interest create the most wealth and then this wealth is supposed to trickle down to those of us who are looking after the rest of life’s necessities such as society & the environment.  Running Man rationalizes the fact that wealth doesn’t trickle down but continues to flow up as caused by the a lack of gumption in the have-nots.  He believes free-enterprise capitalism is an economic system perfectly aligned with natural human impulses and those not benefiting are just too lazy to take advantage of its opportunities. He is like the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats who couldn’t understand that history was passing them by and that they had become irrelevant.

The Running Man image first appeared in a series of oil paintings in 1997. Below is the first appearance of Running Man as a painting/sculpture study of a potential clear sheet acrylic sculpture.

Sculpture Study #1, 1998, acrylic paint on board,

The series began as a personal catharsis  for understanding men who flee attachment but in the process, I became aware that I too was a running man, neglecting the really important parts of life by chasing success and worldly concerns. As they say, artists always make self-portraits.

He’s Leaving Home,1998, 48″ h x 36″ w, oil on board

Though women can and do participate in institutions of dominance, Running Man remains gender-specific to reflect the principally male corporate culture.

 

To the right is another very early Running Man study in oils.  Again this was a study for a sculpture of a figure in a business suit cut out of clear sheet acrylic and superimposed on a scene, in this case, a selection of homey items.

As my understanding of the scope of this series progressed, I began to cut figures of the man in the suit out of plywood, put a clear acrylic briefcase in his hands and set him up in 3D configurations. This business-suited figure represents transnational, discorporate man, optimizing capital and cutting losses. The 3D series went on to examine the larger influences that were breaking down family, community and society and became a larger critique of global capitalism and its impacts on the economy, society,and the environment.

 

Another Running Man painting/sculpture study from this period

Sculpture Study #2, 1998, Acrylic paint on canvas, 42″ x 42″

introduced the idea that later became the wooden sculpture All That Glisters (shown below) and finally the large steel sculpture Running Man installed in Kelowna BC (shown above).

 

The first sculptural piece in the Running Man series was called Special Cases (shown below) and it addressed the impacts of free-market capitalism on the environment and natural resources. The clear acrylic briefcases contain water, trees and fish depicting degradation of ecosystems resulting from hit-and-run development.  The piece looks at the ways in which resources are extracted from  their natural environment and  processed elsewhere so that the value of those resources does not benefit local economies. I exhibited this piece in 1999 in a sculpture exhibition at the University of Northern BC. At the time,

Special Cases, September 1999, Wood, plexiglas, 48″ x 72″ x 30″

I had no capability for shipping transporting or installing sculptures, so I roped the plywood figures and the large wooden base to the top of my Ford Escort wagon and headed toward Prince George. Just before Hope I could see plywood figures sliding off the back of the car in my rear-view mirror, so I pulled off the highway and struggled to tie down my load.  Somehow or other, we got to Prince George where I installed the piece, stayed for a couple of days with a kind friend who was a Commissioner with the Agricultural Land Commission then headed home.

When I made the above piece I was working as a planner for the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), and was sculpting on days off. The title of the piece, Special Cases was inspired by my work at the Commission and an earlier job with the Ministry of Environment .  Both bureaucracies were charged with the responsibility of protecting natural resources, but in both jobs, senior bureaucrats and politicians would find ways to avoid carrying out their legislated duties.  A favourite method of weaseling out from under the requirement to protect agricultural, forest, water and other resource lands is to class them as “Special Cases”.  So for instance, though the ALC was mandated to preserve & protect agricultural lands, a category of lands would be classed as Special Cases so that they can be developed in a business-as-usual approach. For instance, new highway, road or railway rights of way have been designated as Special Cases; as well as pipeline pumping stations, underground pipelines, surveying, exploring or prospecting for gravel, oil or minerals. Whereas it is the objective of the ALC to preserve agricultural land and to encourage the establishment and maintenance of farms a Special Case designation would allow for geophysical exploration for oil and gas, drilling an oil or gas well and drilling an oil or gas well or installing a pipeline without making an application to the Commission.

This is Running Man in his bureaucratic context – ensuring that the dominant paradigm, which is that economic  demands must always take precedence over over social or ecological needs, prevails.  Briefly stated, the dominant paradigm assumes: 1) the universe revolves around the economic needs of one puny species (human beings) rather than the needs of the other 1.7 million species on the planet; and 2) human beings have a God-given right to consume disproportionate amounts of other species and natural ecosystems. Though illogical and irrelevant, this paradigm continues to form the basis of individual, corporate and government decision making in BC and throughout the world.

The next piece in the series was called Colour Theory and it examined the social impacts of unrestrained capitalism on the lives of workers and others. Running Man comes in two versions – large and powerful and small and powerless based on the idea that an imbalance power between males & females arises from relations of  dominance. Poorer males accept the domination of wealthier more powerful males only because the society allows them to dominate females. The more rigid and repressive the power structure in a society, the greater is the need for subjugation of women.

The larger version is a man in a business suit with a clear acrylic briefcase and a hole where his heart and guts should be.  He looks outdated because his style was appropriate in the 1940s and ‘50s when a smaller world population had not yet made it clear that unsustainable consumption of natural resources could not continue indefinitely.  In a world of diminishing natural capital Running Man must become increasingly fanatical in order to ignore the obvious and stick to the unworkable assumptions of the dominant paradigm.  He must run ever faster to keep ahead of the global disasters in his wake

In this piecethe briefcases contain smaller, less powerful naked running men, some of which are dismembered.  These figures indicate the social dislocation that occurs when workers are transients chasing uncertain employment created by increasingly mobile capital.  These smaller figures also appear in a sub-series on the theme of graffiti, to appear later in this blog, investigating competing individual and corporate claims to attention in the public realm. The title Colour Theory also comments on the ways in which elites set various ethnic groups against each other in order to deflect attention away from the fact that the economic system does not serve the majority’s interests.

Colour Theory, May 2001, Wood, Plexiglas, paints, 90″ x 96″ x 40″

The third sculpture in this series of wood & sheet acrylic works is called  All That Glisters (shown below). In this piecethe briefcases contain bright but worthless baubles, illustrating the distorted values of a corporate culture in which economic wealth is valued over ecological and social health. This piece served as a maquette for the monumental sculpture of Running Man that was created in & for Kelowna as part of the Okanagan-Thompson International Sculpture Symposium (OTISS) in 2002.

All That Glisters, 2000, Wood, Plexiglas, found baubles, hardware, 48” x 72” x 30”

OTISS was a wonderful 3 month sculpture symposium that brought talented sculptors from all over the world to eight interior BC communities.  An independent international jury chose 10 Canadian and 10 international artists to sculpt a variety of pieces for each community.  I was chosen to create a 16′ tall steel & resin sculpture of Running Man for a site at the Kelowna Transit Centre.

As anyone who has installed a monumental sculpture in a public place knows, there is a high level of consultation needed with all the interests involved.  In order to communicate with the City of Kelowna on what I would be creating, I learned to create a mock-up of the sculpture as it would look onsite.  Here is one of the first images I sent to the City.

Photoshopped image of initial Running Man proposal

I simply used the above image of All That Glisters, placed it on a pedestal and photoshopped it into place at the Transit Centre in Kelowna.Originally, I had wanted to place the Running Men on a stack of coins & experimented with photoshop versions of a gold or silver stack of coins as shown below.  I wanted to have the edge of each coin ribbed like a real coin, but the cost of an 8′ pedestal of that diameter and the plasma cutting of the ribbing would have been too expensive.

Computer image of Running Man on a stack of silver coins

However, I soon realized that the 3 figures parallel to each other did not create a sufficiently stable form, so using cardboard models, I experimented with other configurations. Below is the maquette with the figures triangulated for greater stability.

Triangulated cardboard maquette of Running Man

I also reduced the pedestal to one coin balanced on a column with CNC routered images of naked running men.  The column referenced ancient columns that always featured ancient Running Man successfully defeating his enemies.

Column of Pedestal ringed with naked running men
One of the Running Man figures cut out using a CNC Plasma cutter. The three figures were cut out of one 3/8″ sheet of 8′ x 24′ mild steel.  I just gave the shop a CAD file on a CD and the machine did the rest.

Though I did as much work as possible myself, much of the fabrication was consigned to a fabrication facility called Monashee and other metal shops, because it was not possible to do it at site I was given beside the Kelowna Public Library. Below is one of the figures freshly cut out of one 3/8″ sheet of mild steel 8′ x 24′.

Below one of the figures is being sand-blasted prior to painting.

Running Man figure being sand-blasted prior to painting

The symposium was modeled on traditional stone carving symposia, where a sculptor works on a large stone for many months.  The symposium organizers had  not anticipated the difficulties of fabricating steel in an urban setting.

An additional problem arose when the symposium organizers were unsuccessful in obtaining hoped-for funding. In the end, the artists were paid after many delays.

After the symposium I wanted to experiment with concrete, especially casting in concrete. So I cast 3 small running men using a rubber mold, (Smooth-On’s Brush-On 35) and a plaster mother mold to cast the three concrete guys for Off-Centre (below).  The concrete mix I use for casting is just cement & sand (1:3) and water mixed 1:4 with white glue (Polyvinyl acetate).  I got the steel flat stock machine rolled and hung a mossy rock from a steel chain.

Off Center, November 2002; cast concrete, steel, found rock, chain; 55″ high x 55″ wide x 8″ deep; shown at Peace Arch Park, 2005

The rock represents the earth and the sculpture comments on the dominant paradigm in which the economy, run by guys in suits, is assumed to be the whole of reality while the earth and its ecosystems are merely “externalities” of an unquantifiable economic value and therefore of no value . This is an inversion of the real world in which the economy is merely one activity by one species on the planet and entirely dependent on the earth’s ecosystems for its continuance.

Above the sculpture is shown at Peace Arch Park which straddles the Canadian/US border. The rock originally hung from a single chain so that it dangled within the steel rim.  But viewers swung the rock on the chain until it flew up and broke one of the figures.  So a second chain was attached to prevent people from playing with the artwork.  It is my theory that mindless activity such as this by art philistines has had a profound effect on contemporary outdoor art.  In order to withstand the rigours of public interaction, sculptures have evolved from earlier works that overcome the limitations of the material to create sweeping, swooping lines and delicate forms to become the current stolid geometrical shapes designed to withstand oafs that climb on, swing from and have their pictures taken atop any and every artwork in the public realm. Nothing can project that will not be snapped off,  no small part can be attached that will not be removed and no paint, powder-coat or other effort to create a durable finish can survive being scuffed and scraped by shoes, pen-knives, stones and anything else that comes to hand or foot.

Partly it is the small percentage of sociopaths among us that are referred to in more detail in another blog http://marionleajamieson.ca/2011/10/30/musings-maquet…on-art-anarchy. But mostly it is the majority of otherwise upstanding citizens who have no idea how to treat sculptures that are unlucky enough to be placed in their path.  Everyone assumes that if something is not a sidewalk, a park bench or a fire hydrant, it must be a climbing apparatus. So people immediately jump on sculptures as they have never been taught otherwise.  As a society we need to educate our citizens not to abuse sculpture the same way people have been taught not to blow smoke in the faces of fellow diners or not to let their doggies poop on the sidewalk.  When I was in Paris, every museum and art gallery had groups of Parisian school kids sitting in front of works of art learning that these things are a precious aspect of their culture.  As you tour the Tuileries Garden you do not see people swinging off heroic outstretched arms or using urns as skateboard ramps.

Sculptures in Tuileries Garden, Paris France

But here in North America we seem to feel that this is what is bound to happen so we should accept it and only permit idiot-proof works to be displayed. However, even the sturdiest, most well-designed & fabricated work isn’t safe from the public.  An example is a great sculpture called Olas de Viento or “Wind Waves”  by Yvonne Domenge which sits overlooking the beach in Richmond’s Garry Point Park.

Olas de Viento or “Wind Waves” by Yvonne Domenge, in Richmond’s Garry Point Park

When we last came across it there were several children climbing through the piece while their Mom attended to her cel phone nearby.  The kids were throwing rocks at the inner surfaces, which is clearly a common activity as the paint finish was chipping off in many places.

Though it is outdoors and relatively unprotected, Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park discourages vandalism of its priceless sculpture collection by unambiguous and continuous signage “Do Not Touch the Sculptures”.  No namby-pamby “please do not climb on the sculptures for your own safety” here.  So no one so much as steps off the foot paths for a closer look.  Every sculpture everywhere should have such a sign to reinforce a public education program to teach everyone respect for artworks in the public realm.

Speaking of artworks in the public realm, since Kelowna’s bold stance in accepting Running Man as a sculpture in its downtown core, there have been no further Running Man commissions. Most municipal governments are dedicated to avoiding public controversy at all costs, so sculptures challenging the financial oligarchy are not welcome.  Carved Bears, leaping fish, abstract forms and colourful banners are not likely to generate outraged letters to the editor, while corporate critiques may discourage generous donations to one’s party from local businesses. And private commissions from the Running Man series have been noticeably absent as well.  Those who can afford to buy artworks (the big collectors in my town are property developers) just don’t want artworks that challenge the political & economic status quo that got them where they are.

The last piece in the Running Man series was a maquette for a steel & resin screen called The Many Moods of Running Man. My idea was to plasma-cut running man figures out of 3/8″ steel then fill in the cut-outs with tinted clear resin. I can see it now at a scale of 1:3 astride a grand plaza with a water feature murmuring in the background and the sun casting deep resin tints onto the concrete! Below is the maquette in wood and Mylar.

The Many Moods of Running Man, 2003, 3′ h x 8′ w; wood & Mylar

The piece addresses the way corporatism co-opts spontaneous creative cultural products for its own purposes.  So if, for instance,  grass-roots organizations are successful in promoting human rights, ecological awareness or if an art movement or school arises that captures the public imagination, corporations are quick to co-opt this energy to their own ends. Thus the life in every worthwhile cultural development from rap to the “Green” movement is neutralized as a vehicle for profit.  This was the last piece in the series as I was running out of storage space & had to admit that buyers weren’t lining up to put a Running Man over the sofa. So for the next 5-6 years I worked on abstract forms even though I had been told at one of those “how to market your artwork” workshops presented by well-meaning government bodies, that the best selling artworks were landscapes and still-lifes (still lives?) and that abstract stuff was way down on the list. My thoughts on abstract art will be marshalled for my next blog.

The Running Man series challenged the unspoken yet pervasive artistic convention that overtly political art is somehow diminished by its subject-matter. At the same time I was working toward creating a two and three dimensional vocabulary of forms that were complete as discreet units and worked together as an overall theme and pushed the limits of my technical abilities to design and fabricate works in three dimensions.

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